A lot of radio aficionados and scientists have heard of Nikola Tesla, but he's still far from
a household name. In my own informal survey about Tesla, I found that
a lot of people are more familiar with the band Tesla, than with the
man himself (the band does have a brief bio of Nikola Tesla on their
Web site, teslatheband.com). Of course, this article is about the man,
not the band, and I think after learning more about Nikola Tesla you'll
agree that, no matter how people learn about him, he certainly deserves
to be more of a household name.
Last year, a lot of people flocked to see A Beautiful Mind, a fictional film/biography
of Jonathan Nash, a brilliant mathematician who suffered paranoid delusions.
It's unfortunate that sometimes it's the tragedy of brilliance that
makes people fascinating to us, but, alas, such is the case with Nikola Tesla.
By all accounts, Tesla was a genius. Modern technology that can be traced back to Tesla
ranges from x-rays to amplifiers and the AC (alternating currents)
powering our electronics. Like Edwin Howard Armstrong, Tesla often
found himself fighting the "powers that be" in order for
his inventions and his mind to be taken seriously. Still, it wasn't
until 1943, the year of his death, that the US Supreme Court recognized
Tesla, not Marconi, as the inventor of radio.
During his lifetime, some of Tesla's ideas boggled the minds of his contemporaries. When
he would talk about the wireless transmission of sound and images,
they thought him delusional. When he hinted at the possibilities of
transmitting electricity wirelessly, he was dismissed as a quack.
Still, despite dying virtually penniless at the age of 86, throughout his life, Tesla had
interacted, and you might even say, left his mark, on some of the most
influential figures of the 20th century. When Tesla arrived in the
United States in 1884, he went to work with Thomas Edison. Their relationship
was less than congenial. Edison, the hard-headed, auto-didactic entrepreneur
wasn't too pleased to work with a brilliant young man who had a highly
pedigreed education. According to some biographers, Tesla could speak
at least six languages, was capable of picturing completed, working
inventions in his head, and knew at a young age that he would someday
harness the power of Niagara Falls for electricity. Tesla also devised
an electrical system for the home of JP Morgan, and went to work for
George Westinghouse after resigning from his work with Edison.
For all his accomplishments,
however, Tesla was most affected by the slap
in the face he felt when Marconi received the Nobel Prize in 1909.
Marconi shared the prize with German scientist Karl Ferdinand Braun, "in
recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy." I
should mention that one of the most famous quotations attributed to
Tesla about Marconi is the following: "Marconi is a good fellow. Let
him continue. He is using seventeen of my patents." Of course, Tesla
spoke these words before Marconi was awarded the Nobel Prize. In a
turn of bitter irony, Tesla died before he was awarded the patent initially
awarded to Marconi. According to the fantastic PBS piece on Tesla
the Supreme Court had awarded the patent to Tesla merely to avoid having
to pay any royalties to the Marconi Corporation, which was suing the
US government for patents used during World War I.
Despite Tesla's frustrations with the radio patent debacle, we shouldn't forget this
remarkable scientist's other accomplishments. During World War I, he had already
envisioned the possibility of using electricity, or electric waves,
to find enemy submarines - or RADAR, and who can forget the famous
images of Tesla Coils, and man-made lightning bolts firing harmlessly
toward on-lookers at the World's Fair. He was the first to use fluorescent
lights, and what of the radio-controlled boat he show-cased in Madison
Square Garden - an invention he considered a harbinger of the future
of robots. Truly, the more you read about Tesla, the more intriguing
he becomes - from his supposed efforts to start man-made earthquakes,
to his belief in receiving radio signals from outer-space, Tesla had
a truly beautiful mind that wove imagination into science, and produced
the stuff of true invention.
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